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Passover Food | Savoring memories of my mother and her plum good brisket

Last year, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley Congregation Netivot Shalom held a Passover food haiku contest on his Facebook wall. My haiku was declared the winner. It read:

A Pesach highlight

My mom’s long lost plum brisket

Somewhere, she’s kvelling.

Here’s the story behind the haiku.

Alix Wall with her mother, Sarah, in 1991

I was looking for my collection of Beatrix Potter books to loan to a friend’s daughter last year when I struck the culinary equivalent of gold. My father had sent me several boxes of my childhood books (which had sat in a closet, largely untouched), and in one of them, he’d tucked in two of my mother’s handmade recipe books.

When it comes to food, I have my mother to thank: As an only child, I’d sit in the kitchen for hours, watching her at work. I inherited not only her love of food, but her love of cooking, too.

After my mom died of breast cancer almost 11 years ago, I took some of her “real” cookbooks — the original “Moosewood Cookbook” (circa 1977), the “Silver Palate Cookbook” and “Jewish Cooking in America,” among them — as well as her homemade recipe books. My mom was a compulsive reader and clipper of recipes. She saved every recipe that sounded good from the food sections of the newspapers she read. Some of the recipes she made, more of them she didn’t. So even though she made indexes in her recipe books, finding dishes in them that I actually recognize and remember is quite difficult.

As it’s now been a quarter of my life without my mom around, I have a mental list of things I’d love to know, “What would Mom think?” Of course the first is what she’d think of my husband, whom she never got the chance to meet. Of lesser importance are what she would think about my leaving journalism to become a personal chef, and what she would think about the fact that after 20 years of being a pescaterian, a few years ago I started eating meat again.

My reasons for the shift could make a story of its own, but suffice it to say that once I resumed eating meat, one of the first dishes I thought about was my mom’s brisket.

After I stopped eating meat at age 19, I never made brisket with her or saw the recipe. But I remembered it as the most delicious brisket I’d ever had. And while I’ve enjoyed a few briskets in the past few years, none compared to my mother’s savory sweet plum brisket.

I scoured the Internet, but found nothing familiar. I checked her Jewish cookbooks, but it wasn’t there. I called two of her best friends to see if they remembered where she’d gotten the recipe, but neither of them knew. I thought it was lost forever, and had pretty much given up.

And then came that box of books that had been sitting in my closet. Along with “The Tales of Peter Rabbit” and “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck” were those two handmade recipe notebooks. I took one and scanned the index. I was multitasking at the time, on the phone making plans with a friend, when I interrupted her, exclaiming, “Oh my God!”

There it was: “Plum Good Beef Brisket.” When I Googled the title, I found a clipping from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in 1983. The recipe had been online all along, but hadn’t come up in my search for “plum brisket.” It wasn’t a traditional Jewish recipe, but no matter, I had found the best brisket ever, in my opinion.

A woman named Katherine Moss, a frequent winner of cooking competitions, came up with this prize-winning recipe for a brisket contest.

And so, last year before Passover, I asked a friend who’d twice fed me brisket using her late mother’s favorite recipe to help me make this one for a Shabbat dinner. We tinkered a bit with the recipe and my expectations couldn’t have been higher: Could this brisket possibly live up to a memory of something I’d last savored more than 25 years ago?

It did — and then some. It was by far the best brisket I’d ever eaten. The next morning I woke up smiling, thinking that no doubt my mom was smiling, too.

Later, I made the brisket for my family’s seder. What joy it gave me to make it for my father and the rest of my family. Everyone agreed it was a fine brisket and I had made my mother proud.

 

Katherine Moss’ Plum Good Beef Brisket

(Adapted by Alix Wall and Suzie Rose)

Serves 6

3 lbs. organic, grass-fed brisket

salt and pepper

3 Tbs. neutral oil such as grapeseed or canola

1 medium red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

1⁄4 cup tamari sauce (if making for Passover and you want to avoid soy, substitute balsamic vinegar)

2 16-oz. cans purple plums

2 Tbs. honey

2 Tbs. lemon juice

3 Tbs. freshly squeezed orange juice

1⁄2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1⁄4 tsp. orange zest

1⁄4 tsp. cinnamon

chopped parsley

Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the brisket. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour. Then, pour some oil in a Dutch oven or large skillet and brown brisket on each side for at least three minutes per side. Remove brisket to plate.

In a separate skillet, add a bit more oil and heat. Sauté onions with a pinch of salt for about 10 minutes, until translucent. Add tamari sauce (or balsamic vinegar) and cook another minute or two.

Place meat fat-side-up in Dutch oven or large skillet. Pour onion mixture on top. Drain plums over a bowl (important!), reserving 1⁄4 cup syrup. Pour rest of the syrup over the meat. Cover and bake at 350 degrees at least 31⁄2 hours until meat is done (very tender).

Meanwhile, remove skins and pits from plums. Mush them up with your hands into a small saucepan. Add reserved syrup, honey, lemon juice, orange juice, Worcestershire, orange zest and cinnamon. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.

When meat is done, tent with foil and let it rest for at least an hour. Trim off the fat and slice against the grain. Pour sauce into meat pan to let plum sauce combine with the meat drippings. Let simmer another 20 minutes, to reduce. Place sliced meat on a platter and top with sauce. Finish with chopped parsley. More sauce can be passed tableside. Makes about 6 servings.

If brisket is made the day before, refrigerate it overnight, then skim the fat off the sauce as well.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."